I must confess that I lack any knowledge in relation to American football. I know that may sound surprising, given that I did live in the States for a year only recently, but try as I might, I could not bear to stand being converted from my one true sporting love of rugby. Suffice to say, I was however exposed to the hype and furore that can only be the Superbowl. I can recall how this event dominated the student scene, with my friends excitedly discussing the form of the competing teams and players, and wondering who would emerge victorious. I, on the other hand, mostly spending my time wondering who/what aforementioned friends were talking about. (Fret not, for I got my own back when the Six Nations Championship rolled around. My talk of ‘scrums’ and ‘lineouts’ and ‘tries’ left prompted the bewildered face I pulled only a week before.)
I did however become aware of the dominance of advertising. The media covered which brands were fortunate enough to have their adverts featuring. Students discussed adverts of old, which ones they liked and were amused by. I even had to write a paper for my Marketing class on the multitude of advertisements flashing across screens both amused and exasperated me. I was amused by obvious attempts to engage with the audience by the creators of said advertisements, who knew that this would be the business equivalent of the Holy Grail for their company. It struck me as odd that despite the Super Bowl being a sporting-fixture, it was mostly known or indeed remembered for the advertisements shown.
People remember images, after all. I recently wrote a post about the power of visuals, noting that:
Visuals, in whatever capacity, are a means of representation. This occurs most especially in advertisements, when companies hope to connect with consumers….
And more often than not, many of us cannot feel represented.
Which brings me to the next observation I made about the Super Bowl last year in the US, and which was reiterated this year. I am speaking about the infamous ‘Halftime show’, when big names in the music industry will come forth, and perform to thousands in the stadium and millions watching at home.
This year, Coldplay, Bruno Mars and a certain Beyoncé graced the stage during the Halfime show. But Beyoncé, who already had caused waves with a surprise single release that Saturday – her first in 14 months, with a politically charged video – stole the show.
Let me start with ‘Formation‘, her new single. In the lyrics, she refers to the Black Lives Matter movement, details what it is to be black in the United States in 2016, and proudly sings: ‘I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros, I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.’
In what mic.com has described as being ‘one of the most political music videos in recent memory’, Beyoncé is seen lying on top of a New Orleans police car that sinks into water – a clear reference to Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged mainly black communities in 2005, with many of those affected feeling abandoned by both state and federal government since.
Moreover, the New South Negress journal wrote about the video that Beyoncé ‘becomes every black southern woman possible for her to reasonably inhabit, moving through time, class, and space’.
It was this song she launched into at the Super Bowl. And it was this song, complete with her backing dancers, that caused such a storm in the US. For Beyoncé proudly, and powerfully, referenced celebrated black figures of the past and recent black history. During the performance, At one point, Beyoncé and her backing dancers raised a fist into the air, mimicking a powerful visual image: the Black Panthers’ salute.
Now, even before the performance, when images of the backing artists were posted from backstage, there were many who picked up on the visual reference of the berets of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party was a militant organisation that rejected the non-violent ideals of Martin Luther King. It was established 50 years ago to defend black people against violence and demand civil rights.
But Beyoncé did not stop there. Apparently paying homage to Michael Jackson through her choice of outfit, at one point she and her dancers formed a large ‘X’ shape. They also formed an arrow, straight lines and a triangle, but it was this particular formation that people noticed. How come? Well, the ‘X’ seemingly referenced another famous black figure, known for demanding change and equality: Malcolm X. Like Martin Luther King, he too was assassinated whilst calling for civil rights. However, unlike Martin Luther king, known for his insistence of peaceful protest and non-violence, Malcolm X was criticised by his opponents for his preaching of violence and apparent racism. He promoted black supremacy, advocated the separation of black and white Americans, and rejected the civil rights movement for their emphasis on integration. So this reference by Beyoncé raised a few eyebrows, and was condemned by some, such as the former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani:
I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers, who are the people who protect her…What we should be doing in the African-American community and all communities is build up respect for police officers.
I should note Giuliani sparked criticism himself in November 2014 for his comments in relation to the shooting of black men by armed police officers. During a NBC segment regarding the anticipated grand jury decision on whether to indict officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Giuliani commented:
Ninety-three percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here…we are not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks are killed by other blacks….
Before he muttered the now infamous line: ‘White police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other.’
The former New York Mayor, everyone. With comments such as these being expressed, seemingly suggesting that only white people can be civilised, live peacefully and only black men are involved in gangs and violence, surely we can understand Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance? Surely we can understand the raw pain and bitter frustration the African-American community in the US must feel every time the breaking news is another story of one of their one, unarmed, being killed by white police officers? Surely we can understand their anger, demand for justice and protests against racism?
To round off the night: it may not have been strictly part of the performance, but images were posted social media of Beyonce’s dancers holding a sign while in the centre of the field. They were demanding justice for Mario Woods. Woods was shot dead by police in San Francisco in December 2015. Videos of his death under intensive fire went viral. Subsequent pressure by civil rights groups has led the US Justice Department to open an investigation into the shooting.
Beyoncé’s performance was powerful, in terms of visual impact. It was also a passionate performance about black power, strength and demanding equality and the end of racism. Beyoncé knew the eyes of the US, and even around the world would be on her during her performance, and she sought to use that to full effect. One description of the Super Bowl event I kept seeing though the days that followed was that Beyoncé’s performance was “unapologetically black”, which is probably why some felt uncomfortable viewing it: they could not bear to be reminded that African-Americans are still subject to racism, discrimination and prejudice in 2016, and did not like being reminded by a pop star who is black.
She struck a nerve, as evidenced by the condemnation of the performance by Conservative news channel Fox News, with Fox News host Brian Kilmeade saying:
…we find out Beyonce dressed up in a tribute to the Black Panthers, went to a Malcolm X formation. And the song, the lyrics, which I couldn’t make out a syllable, were basically telling cops to stop shooting blacks!
After recalling Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ at a prior Super Bowl, Kilmeade went on to argue that the NFL had a responsibility to censor Beyonce’s performance, complaining why “didn’t they go and review this and say, wait a second?”
Her performance, focusing as it did on the recent protests against racial discrimination in the US by activist movements such as Black Lives Matter, actually triggered plans for a group to protest outside the NFL’s headquarters in New York as they consider her performance as racist. I cannot be the only one to spot the irony here. When a visual performance seeks empowerment and equality, especially considering the too-long list of those killed ‘for the crime of being black‘, it is not racist, but highlighting the true victims of racism which is sadly still present in society.
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance and its controversial reception in some quarters reminded me of the cases I recently came across in my Law studies. Last semester, I studied two modules which focused on legal theory. I was fortunate to study Critical Race Theory (CRT) which focused upon the application of critical theory to provide a critical examination of society and culture, and to examine the intersection of race, law, and power. This theory opened my eyes, and give me a new perspective into understanding racism and how it can be implicit in public institutions such as the police, and the courts.
I came to understand that CRT argues racism is ingrained in the fabric and system of society; the individual racist need not exist to note how pervasive institutional racism is in dominant culture. CRT identifies that power structures in society are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which serve to perpetuate the marginalisation of people of colour. Moreover, whilst traditional legal discourse states the neutrality of the law, and its colourblindness, CRT challenges this legal ‘truth’ by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a means for self-interest, power, and privilege. CRT also recognises that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy: everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege all whilst ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides. In addition, intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppression and recognises race alone cannot account for disempowerment.
In my Understanding Human Rights module, we discussed a case from Australia, that of Apple being forced to apologise after a staff member at one of its Victorian stores kicked out a group of black students over fears they ‘might steal something‘. We were asked to think about the writings of Patricia Williams, a proponent of CRT, and apply CRT to this case.
I submitted that this incident not only confirms Williams’ submission that African-Americans are a ‘pre-packaged class of victims’, but it also highlighted the prevailing stereotypical attitude that black people are perpetrators of criminal acts. These young people were informed that they would be watched and subjected to close monitoring by the store staff on the basis of their being black; it is therefore implied the store staff believed they would attempt to commit theft and this prejudicial belief stems from their skin colour. Can you imagine a group of young white boys being told the same thing by a staff member? I do not think this would happen in the first place. That such a prejudicial attitude is still in existence is shameful. Consider this thought with Beyoncé’s performance: would a white singer, singing about a white movement have been considered controversial? After all, it was considered acceptable to have an-all white nominee list for top four categories in the Oscars this year– for the second year in a row. Beyoncé’s visual performance merely served to highlight the prejudice witnessed in the above Australian case.
I was also reminded of an incident in America, where a ladies book club group, who had been laughing on a wine-tasting train in Napa Valley, were unduly thrown off the train. The argument was they were disrupting the experience for other passengers as they were ‘laughing too loudly’. But it is too obvious that they faced discrimination on the basis of their skin colour: all but one of the book club members on the train were African American. The group was escorted through six train cars, with one of the women saying they felt ‘on display in front of the other guests to waiting police like we were criminals’. These women simply wanted to enjoy themselves, but the moment they became ‘noticeable’ then their skin colour did, too. And it was then that they were removed from the carriage; a symbolic representation of the stereotypical view that as whites are the majority, their rights and interests should be forefront. No wonder the hashtag #Laughingwhileblack went viral.
But let’s note the CRT’s argument of intersectionality: this is a case of bias against both race and gender. Would men have been removed from the train if they had been ‘laughing too loudly’? Was it just easier to remove women, on the basis that they are ranked lower in society anyway? Consider Beyoncé: was she a target for condemnation and criticism on channels such as Fox News, because it was a black woman making a political statement? You see, female pop star is expected to look sexy, to perform sultry dance moves, not proudly declare her race and be a civil rights activist.
Black people are stereotyped as being more likely to offend than their white counterparts; this is evident in the disproportionate detention of black people in prisons in both the UK and in the US. Black people and people of other ethnic minorities are more likely to be subject to questioning by security services, whether in towns and stores or in airports. Is it any wonder that we view ‘stop and search’ policing powers as controversial, when we know that such powers tend to be applied more readily to non-white members of society?
We may argue that given the statistics for arrests and convictions, as non-whites tend to be the majority in both, this should be carried into practice by the police through stop and search to prevent crimes occurring. Yet this is a myth. We believe this, and refuse to realise it is the existence of a prejudicial nature within police practice, based on convenient stereotypes: nonwhites are disproportionately affected in the criminal justice system, thus we cannot rely on statistics to validate our stereotypical attitude. These statistics may only exist because of prejudice. Moreover, we cannot deny that race plays a role in the criminal justice system, both in the UK and the US. We cannot deny that black people are too often victims of police brutality and victims of police prejudice. Stephen Lawrence in the UK is an example of blacks being victimised and denied access to justice. Mike Brown and Tamir Rice were young and unarmed black boys, shot dead by armed white police officers. These cases denote the truth in Williams’ statement about ‘prepackaged victims’: their very skin colour denoted their victim status and wrapped them in the stereotypical branding of ‘young and black, so must be armed and about to commit a crime’. It reinforces that view challenged by CRT, that of the supposed neutrality and colourblindness of the law and public institutions, and reiterates a stereotypical view that whites are superior, and whites should enforce law and order.
Perhaps you feel none of the above cases, whether involving young black men being shot, thrown out of a shop or black women thrown off a train are at all connected to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance. But they do have a connection: they clearly illustrate prejudice and stigma in both society and the law. I just am both sad and frustrated that we are still discussing current incidents of racial stereotyping and stigma in 2016.
For a visual timeline of events, starting from Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance to the subsequent complaints, why not take a look at Buzzfeed’s article?